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Looted goods are big business in postwar Iraq

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Ali Salman refuses to go back to work as a grocer. He says the real money these days is in looting.

Within hours of the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime, Salman, 28, looted Vice President Taher Ramadan's home and stole two sinks. One is in his bathroom. The other is for sale on the street in front of the reformed police department.

It's going for 50,000 Iraqi dinars, about $25. That's more than he would make as a grocer in a week.

Salman's and many other Baghdad stores remain closed because of limited electricity and no money to pay wages.

But sales are brisk. Instead of entering a store and speaking with the man behind the counter, Baghdadis buy looted goods from makeshift markets on the streets.

Street vendors offer a variety of goods and more affordable prices than before the war. In some cases, looters offer government documents to buyers who have no government to turn to.

It's among the first signs of capitalism in this liberated nation, albeit born from stolen goods.

There are three major markets in the area: downtown Baghdad, New Baghdad in the southeast and Saddam City in the northeast.

Men who stole cars can obtain tags and registration and declare ownership. Those who need to change their names can pick up new identification papers. Even some of Saddam's dishware is available, most of it for less than $10.

Buyers can obtain Iraqi passports and documents that show someone was in the Republican Guard or the military.

And of course, there are thousands of looted weapons available for people who want to protect themselves from the looters. No one should pay more than $50 for an AK-47.

Besides goods taken from government buildings, the looters said they found a huge cache of goods in Saddam's warehouses, goods that went only to his chosen few.

Among the most popular merchandise are soccer balls, athletic shoes and Iraqi national soccer team sweatsuits.

Some vendors proudly sell stolen items. They say the items legitimately belonged to them, and Saddam stole them.

Others say they would never steal; they simply bought from thieves. Thieves who sell goods in bulk are tough to spot, but the sellers say they exist.

Khalid al Kahn, 25, said he bought 60 pairs of shoes for 300,000 dinars from a thief who showed up at the market. Kahn sells each pair for 15,000 dinars, about $7.50.

"Look, we need the money," Kahn said. "And everybody wants a pair."

The peddlers sound like crafty dealers selling used cars: "We have everything. Everything."

"Everything" is displayed on sheet after sheet in the streets. On one sheet, there's a pile of light switches, next to electrical circuit boards, next to multi-line telephones. Another seller, like Salman, will have only one item to offer. Still others mix their usual goods with the stolen ones.

In the background of some of the markets, gunfire can be heard. It's the sound of those testing stolen guns.

Most of these things were available before the war, but at almost unaffordable prices. The prewar price for a soccer ball: 25,000 dinars. Today it sells for 2,000. A passport might have gone for 1 million dinars, or $500, before the war, but today it's worth about $50. The soccer shoes that now sell for $7.50 used to cost $20.

The sellers, many of whom usually have other jobs, explained their discounted prices by pointing out there is "no overhead." And basic supply and demand economics works in Baghdad too, they say.

Across the street from Salman are two traffic cops shopping for clothes. They say they're doing nothing illegal; these clothes weren't stolen.

At the New Baghdad market, Musah Saad, 28, set up shop on a piece of concrete. He sells license plates he stole from the factory, thousands of them. For 25,000 dinars, he offers two plates and legal registration. The traffic officer across the street stamped the cards for him, he said.

Kahn, who sells shoes, said he didn't worry that what goes around comes around. No one would dare steal from him, he said.

"I would cut his hand off if he tried to steal from me."


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ+LOOT